Reliable reports continue to circulate that President Biden intends to call for a "summit of democracies" to convene this summer, although concerns that such a large gathering might become a super-spreader of the coronavirus may delay those plans. The implicit goal is to create a political, diplomatic (and eventually a military) bloc of democratic countries to contain the power and influence of the two leading authoritarian states, Russia and China, and to counter the supposedly surging appeal of authoritarianism globally. It is a concept that is deeply flawed both conceptually and in terms of execution. Indeed, the pursuit of this pernicious chimera has the potential to poison America’s already fragile relations with several important countries and to heighten risks to the security and well-being of the American people.
Biden and key advisers highlighted their wish to create a league of democracies (under Washington’s benevolent leadership, of course) even before the administration took office. Biden himself gave the proposal considerable prominence during the 2020 presidential election campaign. He and other officials also have exhorted Washington’s existing democratic alliance partners to create a common front against both Moscow and Beijing.
In remarks delivered on December 28, the president-elect stated that "as we compete with China and hold China’s government accountable for its abuses on trade, technology, human rights, and other fronts, our position will be much stronger when we build coalitions of like-minded partners and allies to make common cause with us in defense of our shared interests and values." Biden added that "on any issue that matters to the U.S.-China relationship,… we [the United States] "are stronger and more effective when we are flanked by nations that share our vision for the future of our world."
The president’s speech to the annual Munich Security Conference in February 2021 even more emphatically conveyed his belief in both democratic solidarity and an alleged global authoritarian menace. "We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world. We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face … autocracy is the best way forward, and those who understand that democracy is essential – essential to meeting those challenges." Increased cooperation among the world’s democracies was imperative, he stressed. "I hope our fellow democracies are going to join us in this vital work."
Biden left no doubt about the two principal sources of the "threat" to democratic values. "We must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China. How the United States, Europe, and Asia work together to secure the peace and defend our shared values and advance our prosperity across the Pacific will be among the most consequential efforts we undertake." His animus toward Beijing was clear, but his hostility toward Moscow seemed even more pronounced. Biden contended that democratic solidarity "is also how we’re going to be able to meet the threat from Russia. The Kremlin attacks our democracies and weaponizes corruption to try to undermine our system of governance." The challenges coming from Russia "may be different than the ones with China, but they’re just as real."
The following month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also urged the European democracies to "counter" both Russia and China. For all the rhetoric about shared democratic values, there was an unmistakable tone in the Biden administration’s various exhortations of a underlying desire for an anti-Russia and anti-China alliance based on cold-blooded, geostrategic and geopolitical calculations.
There are multiple problems associated with a summit of democracies, much less the creation of an organized league of democracies. There already is speculation about which countries will or will not be included on the roster of invitees to the conclave. Washington apparently will be the sole judge of which countries have sufficient credentials to qualify as "democratic," but even with such unilateral power, dilemmas abound. Some of the NATO allies may find that their invitations were lost in the mail – unless the Biden administration wants to practice rank hypocrisy. No serious person can contend that Recey Tayyip Erdogan’s regime in Turkey is a genuine democracy any longer – not with thousands of political opponents languishing in prison and independent media outlets being forcibly transferred to Erdogan’s cronies.
Other NATO members, most notably Hungary and Poland, are not far behind Turkey on the autocracy scale. But will the United States ostentatiously snub some of its own Alliance partners? Or will U.S. officials conveniently overlook such flaws, even though doing so would undercut the moral case being made against an autocratic Russia? Washington faces a similar problem with some of its other favorite regimes in Eastern Europe, especially those in Kosovo and Ukraine. The tension between US demands for democratic purity and strategic considerations may become even more acute with respect to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s increasingly authoritarian rule in India.
Although Biden administration officials seem to believe that establishing a league of democracies and creating a strategic alliance against Russia and China are fully compatible goals, they are not. Some genuine democratic countries, such as Japan and South Korea, are wary of joining a U.S.-led crusade against their powerful neighbors. Other countries that may be interested in being part of a common front against one or both of those powers are incapable of passing as democratic states.
Given its history of hypocrisy on the issue of democracy, the Biden administration may just opt for flagrant hypocrisy. After all, US officials throughout the Cold War had no problem portraying some of the most thuggish regimes on the planet as members of the "Free World" – as long as they followed Washington’s lead and opposed the Soviet Union. Even during the post-cold war era, US administrations have maintained exceedingly cozy relationships with the likes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The likely hypocrisy that will envelop plans for a league of democracies is bad enough, but the notion of a democratic crusade against Russia and China is potentially very dangerous. Washington’s hardline policies already are creating alarming tensions with both Moscow and Beijing, and those policies are driving the two countries together to defend their core interests. The Biden administration needs to seek ways to reduce, not exacerbate, those tensions. Instead, US officials seem intent on pursuing an array of measures that could provoke a crisis with a Russian-Chinese alliance. Biden’s proposed summit of democracies and his broader plan for a global democratic alliance is additional rhetorical cover for a dual containment policy that could easily blow up in Washington’s face. The sooner that scheme is abandoned, the better.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.